Batshani Ndaba: Kalanga language on the move in Botswana

Updated: September 24, 2012

By Kibo Ngowi  reprinted from The Monitor/Mmegi Online

There is an old Ikalanga proverb, which says “lulimi tjilenje” (language is culture). This saying captures the centrality of a people’s language to their way of life. It is a point that is not lost on Batshani Ndaba.

A veteran journalist and public relations expert, the single cause to which Ndaba has been consistently committed to in the course of his remarkable life has been that of promoting and preserving the culture of his forefathers and the language that is a central part of it – Ikalanga. Ndaba is the co-founder and National Chairperson of the Society for the Promotion of the Ikalanga Language (SPIL), an organisation whose mandate is to promote and preserve Ikalanga culture, particularly by applying pressure on government to re-introduce the teaching of Ikalanga in Botswana schools. SPIL falls under a wider organisation called the Multi-cultural Coalition of Botswana, which Ndaba describes as an umbrella organisation that combines the efforts of all the organisations that represent marginalised people in the country.

“We realised that if we continued fighting for our rights individually, we could never win, but that together we could apply enough collective pressure on government to ultimately succeed,” says Ndaba.

He served as chairperson of the coalition from 2002 to 2008. However, Ndaba only became known for his virulent cultural activism after he had already made a name for himself as a pioneering journalist and public relations practitioner. Ndaba worked in the government press for 16 years (1971-1987), starting as a reporter and finally reaching the position of Managing Editor of Publications at the Department of Information amp; Broadcasting.

Ndaba may have never gone into journalism had he not been influenced by his uncle, Knight Maripe, who was a journalist who managed to spark the young Ndaba’s interest in writing. Ndaba remembers the day he completed his Form Five at Gaborone Senior Secondary School clearly. It was Friday November 26, 1971. He was immediately sent to start working as a clerk at what was then called the Ministry of Labour amp; Health Services. But Ndaba, already clear in what he wanted to pursue as a career, went to the Department of Information & Broadcasting that same day. The following Monday he began work as a reporter and has never looked back.

Ndaba was fortunate to be amongst the first crop of people to be trained as professional journalists in Botswana.
He earned a certificate in journalism from the African Literature Centre in Kitwe, Zambia. He went on to earn a diploma in journalism from the University of Nairobi in Kenya. He later read for a Bachelor’s Degree in Communication followed by a Master’s Degree in Journalism amp; Public Affairs, both from the American University in Washington, DC. During the same period, Ndaba was also attached to various news agencies and publications, including the Zambia News Agency, the Washington Afro-American newspaper and Reuters News Agency.

Ndaba would discover the ultimate irony when he returned home. He realised that the same institution that had allowed him to receive superior training was not conducive to the practice of what he had learned.
“Unfortunately, the training that is given to journalists in the government media of Botswana is a waste,” says Ndaba. quot;I had a master’s degree in journalism. I was working for government and found out that my training was useless in the environment. I couldn’t apply the principles and the ethics that I had learned in journalism school,” he said.

This disappointing revelation was undoubtedly one of the factors that inspired a move to the private media, taking over as Editor-in-Chief at the Botswana Guardian where he served from 1987 to 1991.  “Working for the government, you follow government policy; you tell people what the government feels the public need to know,” says Ndaba, “There’s a lot of censorship. You don’t tell the story as it is because somebody tells you what you should tell the public. In the private media, you tell it like it is. You’re free to use your own judgement in deciding what is newsworthy. The difference is as vast as night and day.”

In 1992 Ndaba made an even more dramatic move when he was recruited by Debswana to become their first Corporate Communications Manager. He had the onerous task of establishing Debswana’s public relations unit from scratch. Ndaba explains that being in charge of creating a new unit had its advantages and disadvantages.

The advantage was that nobody could tell him what to do so he had a lot of freedom. The disadvantage was that there were no guidelines as to what to do next so it was similar to peddling in darkness, muses Ndaba. Through trial and error, he eventually got the unit up and running and hired Jacob Sesinyi to partner him. Ndaba says that his fondest memory of his time building Debswana’s PR unit is the exposure to the international diamond industry he received. During this time, he visited the De Beers diamond operations in Botswana, Namibia and South Africa. He also visited operations in Israel and the De Beers headquarters in London.

All the while, Ndaba was active in promoting Ikalanga culture. In the 1980s he was the editor of a now defunct newspaper, Tjedza (light) which published folklore stories, idioms and all sorts of other things in Ikalanga. More recently he was involved in the establishment of Mukami Action Campaign, a group of Francistown-based writers who produce books, songs and other materials in Ikalanga. Another organisation he founded, Re Teng holds a biannual cultural festival called the Re Teng National Culture Festival. For a long time he served as the chairperson of the organising committee of the annual Domboshaba Festival. His career may boast achievements educationally and professionally in the fields of journalism and public relations but it is clear where Ndaba’s passion truly lies.

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